Overlord (2018)

Overlord (***)
By Jon Waterman

Summary – At the height of World War II, American troopers parachute into France in order to destroy a radio tower the Germans have been using and heavily guarding.  There’s limited time to accomplish the mission and limited resources as all of the planes are shot down and most of the troops are killed on the voyage.  With only a handful of soldiers left, the odds are stacked against the Americans, but with the help of a French villager named Chloe they may still have a chance.  Oh and there are some genetically modified German monsters to worry about too.

Over-reaching – This film is a really good mix of the war and horror genres.  The situational combination plays out about as naturally as the subject matter can allow.  It was really fun to see the easy transitions between guns-a-blazing war movie to creepy laboratory scenes to stealthy war to gross out monster gore and so on.  It reminded me of another under the radar genre-bender called “Dog Soldiers” in that respect.  On the other hand, it also gave me a “Resident Evil” vibe, and this story could certainly work as a video game.

Undercooked – So, while the plot is fine and fun, the dialogue is lacking and basic.  There aren’t any cheesy lines, which I appreciate, but also no one says anything interesting or memorable or insightful. I’ll also say that in the beginning, it was really hard to hear the dialogue in the plane.  I’m not sure if it was just my theater, but after that scene there were no issues.  However, despite missing most of what was said, I didn’t miss any character development.  They all wind up as one- or two-dimensional vehicles used for basic plot progression only.   We’ve seen these stereotypes hundreds of times before and the movie’s horror bend probably makes it easier to accept those shortcomings.

Over Kills – After all, the monsters are cool…mostly (See “Biggest Disappointment”). The makeup is great. There are plenty of gory deaths and a couple of inventive ones.  It’s easy to have fun watching this movie.  It does fall victim to the stereotypical horror tropes with cheap jump scares and some monster running across the screen with a musical sting, but those instances are minimal.

Biggest Standout – I don’t want to give anything away, but there was a fantastic tracking shot at the end of the movie with plenty of action.  I honestly couldn’t tell if it was mostly CG or just meticulously planned and timed, but either way, it was an awesome finishing sequence.

Biggest Disappointment – One of the most prominently featured monsters was also the most over the top and the most like a cartoon one we see.  Imagine a terrible actor at a haunted house and then amplify it a bit.

Is It Worth Watching Again? – I would indeed.  I do think it’s important to know that there are horror elements going into the movie, because otherwise you might get thrown off.  It takes a while for that part to start up, but the intensity builds.  I hope “Overlord” doesn’t end up under appreciated.

Rating: R
Year: 2018
Running Time: 110 min
Director: Julius Avery
Writer: Billy Ray, Mark L. Smith
Starring:  Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier

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Overlord (1975)

originally posted on filmbrats.com

Overlord (****)
Reviewed by Jon Waterman

Tom is a young guy eager to join the British army and help the Allies win World War II.  Quickly, he’s introduced to the new code of conduct and regulations he must abide by.  We follow him as he stumbles through it all; from basic training to actual combat. From his down time enjoying the company of a nice girl to his departure to take part in Operation Overlord, Tom increasingly becomes more and more disillusioned not only with the war, but also with himself and his place in the world.

Simply put, this is a film buff’s dream.  The cinematography alone will make you wonder where the movie has been all your life.  Then when you think about how the filmmakers were somehow able to actually pull off that amalgamation of genres into a potable minimalistic story…well, that might send you over the edge.  It’s a shame this film hasn’t been released theatrically before now in 2006, more than a quarter-century after its completion.  Not only is it an amazingly strong piece of awe-inspiring filmmaking, but it’s also probably the only truly effective experimental narrative feature to be made within that time span.

Every serious film student and hardcore aficionado owes it to themselves to see this film.  John Alcott’s cinematography (“A Clockwork Orange”) is simply breathtaking.  Although a good portion of the film was created using archival war footage, the original compositions are poignant reflections of Tom’s emotional state, from naïve, curious young soldier up through his embittered ever growing sense of despair.  If it were made today, you’d swear up and down that these shots were computer generated.  There’s no way the camera could possibly capture that massive rolling piece of out of control machinery as it rampaged through the beach and then settled perfectly on the left third of the frame, providing the perfect foreground image for the backdrop of the soldiers’ battle at Normandy.  I bet there are other people working today that have the skill level to pull that off, but the producers or directors would have no desire or need for them to attempt some of these shots that can be compiled in post.  But you just don’t get the same feeling from the frames the cold computer touched.  These shots are much more meaningful and powerful not only because they are astoundingly beautiful and poetic while at times being gritty and dangerous, but because they were crafted by hand.  Some people may not think that element comes through the projection screen, but I certainly do.

The mainstream most likely wouldn’t take to this movie very easily.  That’s probably a big factor as to why the film, completed in 1975 has not had a non-festival theatrical release until 2006.  I’m sure there are several factors taken into account when deciding to hide this gem.  This isn’t made with the mass appeal of a “Saving Private Ryan” (although both films portray that battle with very different senses of hopelessness and chaos).  There is a solid narrative thread, but ultimately not a whole lot happens within it.  The movie is very visually based and draws from many genres to create its ever-changing atmosphere.  The aforementioned found footage often substitutes for insert shots and can be seen most of the time the actors don’t appear on the screen.  They also help to indicate the passage of time.  Anytime a montage of war images comes up, you know Tom just got worse.  There is a bit of a romantic subplot here, but it’s very basic and non-Hollywood as it culminates in an odd dream sequence.  The whole film really strays from your typical formula, but still turns out coherent and effective.

Rating: NR
Year: 1975
Running Time: 83 min
Director: Stuart Cooper
Writer: Christopher Hudson, Stuart Cooper
Starring: Brian Stirner, Davyd Harries, Nicholas Ball

Dog Soldiers (2002)

originally posted on filmbrats.com

Dog Soldiers (***)
Reviewed by Jon Waterman

A group of British Soldiers, out on a training mission and using weapons with blanks, come across some unexpected trouble. Their enemy in the exercise, the “Special Forces” have all but disappeared, leaving only a wounded captain behind. Sensing an unnatural danger, they make their way to an abandoned home. It is there that they find out they have no escape, because the werewolves are loose and they are angry.

Sounds kinda dumb, doesn’t it? I thought so, too. And then I watched the movie and found myself pleasantly surprised.

According to the box and the trailer, this movie is on par with “Evil Dead,” “Alien,” “Predator,” and even “Jaws.” However, I think they’re all missing one key comparison. If one must compare, then why not say “Night of the Living Dead?” It has evil entities trying to break into the house. If a person is bitten or injured by a werewolf, they become one themselves (sorta like zombies). There are people in the house pitted against each other at the worst possible time. Also, there’s a low budget, some honest scares and a decent story with good characters. This movie is “Night of the Living Dead” with werewolves and British people – plain and simple.

First time director Neil Marshall (who also wrote it) comes through and delivers an intelligent, entertaining story. Even if you don’t care about the plot, it’s easy to just sit back and watch all the fighting fun as the soldiers run from room to room warding off those misunderstood doggies. There’s plenty of blood and guts to keep you wincing and saying, “Cool!”

The acting is surprisingly good, too. Led by Sean Pertwee and Kevin McKidd, all are convincing soldiers. I think this is what truly helps this film stand out from all the other “B-class” horror flicks. Without good acting, “Dog Soldiers” would be nothing but a dumb cheap movie with nothing more than a couple of cool effects and good cinematography. Instead, it’s all of that, but with good acting.

Not taking itself seriously is the best move “Dog Soldiers” could have made, since going into that house sure wasn’t. You’ll laugh, you’ll jump, you’ll stock up on silver. This film can easily become a cult classic, all it needs is word of mouth. Well, this mouth is wording. If horror is your game then remember the “Dog Soldiers” name.

Rating: R
Year: 2002
Running Time: 105 min
Director: Neil Marshall
Writer: Neil Marshall
Starring: Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Emma Cleasby

Mid90s (2018)

Mid90s (**1/2)
By Jon Waterman

Summary – Stevie is looking for his place in the world, just like many teenagers.  His home life isn’t offering much with an abusive older brother, no father, and a seldom seen mother.  So, Stevie takes to the streets and finds a group of skateboarding kids that give him the family and purpose he’s been missing.

Dropped in the Middle of the ‘90s – It’s strange to think of the 1990s as a historical time, but it is, and this film does an amazing job of capturing that era.  At times it felt like we were watching a documentary, which I’m sure was the intention.  The choice to shoot the film in 16mm is perfectly suited for that atmosphere.  The slightly muted color timing adds the right amount of “age” and the packaging, in the closer to 4:3 aspect ratio, gives off the vibe of a more independent movie from that era.

Mid-Scene – In terms of the story, there’s a bit missing.  There are several subplots or character relationships that aren’t explored or properly explained.  Considering the movie is less than 90 minutes, there’s certainly room to flesh this out and show us more with Stevie’s brother (Lucas Hedges) and mother (Katherine Waterston), or even some more of the progression and contention in his relationships with the skater kids.  Key plot points seem to be “skated” over.

Early Career – The actors do a great job with the material, including a lot of newcomers in that group of young skaters.  The film rests on Stevie’s shoulders, though, and Sunny Suljic is somewhat hit and miss, although more often hit.  Sunny really brings out a sense of infectious joy at the character’s happier times, and I was right there with him as he expressed the nervousness of assimilation and then the cautiously optimistic feeling like he belongs.  The more dramatic parts and darker times bring out the child actor in him and don’t seem as natural.

Biggest Standout – As someone who spent most of his teen years in the 1990s, this was very nostalgic.  However, even though it embodied that time period, the film’s goal wasn’t to wedge in a bunch of pop culture references. It lived in the moments, and did not necessarily celebrate the time period.

Biggest Disappointment – The story was too empty for me.  Out of three major coming of age movies this year I’ve seen so far (the others being “Eighth Grade” and “The Hate U Give”), I was anticipating this one the most.  But, it wasn’t anywhere as impactful or profound as the others.

Is It Worth Watching Again? – It’s clear that the movie takes inspiration from “Kids,” which was an actual snapshot in time and one that I naively thought was a documentary when I saw it for the first time back in 1995.  I wanted this to be closer than that, and it just can’t come close.  I wouldn’t fault anyone for watching “Mid90s” again, but I’d need more depth to make it worthwhile.

Rating: R
Year: 2018
Running Time: 85 min
Director: Jonah Hill
Writer: Jonah Hill
Starring:  Sunny Suljic, Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt

Ken Park (2003)

originally posted on filmbrats.com

Ken Park (***)
Reviewed by Jon Waterman

Ken Park goes skating in the local hot spot like he always does.  This time, he sits down on one of the concrete hills, pulls a video camera and a gun out of his backpack and shoots himself.  Shawn is having an affair with his girlfriend’s mother.  Peaches has a boyfriend, a wild side, and an ultra-religious, overprotective widowed father.  Claude’s father (who thinks skateboarding will turn his son gay, if it hasn’t already) beats him while his apathetic, pregnant mother sits there.  Tate lives with his board game playing grandparents who don’t respect his privacy or his psychotic artistic vision.

“Ken Park” is not so much the story of the title character, but rather about the different paths kids in his clique take when dealing with life.  His suicide isn’t as much a factor as the opening would have you believe.  It’s not mentioned in the film, and it doesn’t need to be.  These young teenagers have their own struggles and inner demons to worry about.  There’s a part of me that doesn’t like that the stories don’t intertwine.  These people are friends, but we only see them interact with each other in one long, graphic scene.  Surprisingly, though, that scene gives the movie a definitive point.  And so the other part of me is glad they don’t mix.  It helps to build the running metaphor and to avoid ruining some of the more delicately constructed relationship dynamics we see.

Once again, director Larry Clark and writer Harmony Korine (“Kids”) team up to present us with an unadulterated look at various facets of today’s youth that might otherwise go unrecognized, unnoticed, or unknown.  The brutal visuals by cinematographer and co-director Edward Lachman (“Far From Heaven”) are underscored with a typical family melodrama look and feel.  There is a lot of disturbing imagery shown here and there’s a lot of beauty to be found as well.  None of it seems all too out of reach.

The young, inexperienced cast does an amazing job.  With the exception of Tate, all the main young characters are first time actors picked from the streets of the community they’re embodying.  Their delivery and ability to connect with the written word is remarkable and just as good as a professional would or could do.  I think what amazes me the most is the composure and comfort shown when involving themselves in the pornographic scenes (which serve a well-meaning purpose and don’t stand out as much as you might imagine they would).

Despite all my elementary, psychoanalytical musings, I have to say that the movie isn’t perfect and will cause a lot of unrest within the audience (and not just because of the visual element).  I was left uneasy with the way the story was told.  Even if after thinking about it more, I rationalized any problems, the appearance of flaws still exists.  Some of it seems overly sensationalistic and purposefully in-your-face.  But behind the boundary push are several levels of meaning.  You can create your own meanings and interpretations from the film and many people can and will walk away from it satisfied for a variety of reasons.  I myself took the film to be good and slightly groundbreaking, but by no means outstanding.

Rating: NR
Year: 2003
Running Time: 93 min
Director: Larry Clark, Ed Lachman
Writer: Harmony Korine
Starring: Adam Chubbuck, James Bullard, Seth Gray

The Hate U Give (2018)

The Hate U Give (***1/2)
By Jon Waterman

Summary – Starr lives in a rough part of town with her family but goes to a private school in an affluent, predominantly white area.  Finding a balance between those two lives can be hard enough, but it becomes nearly impossible after Starr’s childhood friend is killed by the police during a routine traffic stop without legitimate cause.  Now Starr is the only witness that can testify against the young white cop, but that might be a pressure she can’t handle.

Broken Mirror – The film deals with what should be a very simple concept and topic (that everyone deserves equal justice and treatment under the law, for starters), and dives into the complexities that various fragments of society have constructed surrounding it.  That’s a very tall order for a movie clocking in at a little over two hours, but it does a great job with the time allotted.  It presents arguments, and counters weak talking points, all while moving along the plot in a compelling and entertaining way. And if that weren’t enough, there’s also a coming of age thread weaved in (Starr is a teenager, after all, so she’s forced to grow up faster than normal), but it’s all balanced perfectly.

T.H.U.G. – The script (based on the novel by Angie Thomas) is obviously taut and profound.  One of the recurring references is of the late 2 Pac’s lyrics (including the title), which made me think about how the soundtrack was relatively void of hip hop and rap.  It’s there when appropriate but there’s no pandering to a different crowd by trying to fill a soundtrack with hits.

Starr Power – Ultimately the film isn’t going to work without good acting, and we get a great performance from Amandla Stenberg as Starr.  She handles the tonal shifts with no problem and has a magnetic personality in both the light-hearted and the heavy-hearted times.  The audience looks to her to be the leader and spokesperson and she doesn’t let us down.

Biggest Standout – There’s plenty of levity in what could easily be an unendingly bleak story. But, not only is it welcome and well-done, it’s necessary when talking about the humanity of an entire race of people.

Biggest Disappointment – That there’s a pretty large group of people that wouldn’t even give the movie a chance based on the subject matter.  I don’t think that the movie ultimately presents any new information to anyone that pays close attention to the key issues here, but people that might have their eyes opened by the film likely would purposefully keep them shut.

Is It Worth Watching Again? – Honestly, I don’t know.  Optimistically, it would be great to revisit it in a couple decades to use as a marker for how far we’ve come as society.  Pessimistically, I think it will be just as relevant then as “Boyz n the Hood” is now.

Rating: PG-13
Year: 2018
Running Time: 133 min
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Writer: Audrey Wells
Starring:  Amandla Sternberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby

Eighth Grade (2018)

Eighth Grade (***1/2)
By Jon Waterman

Summary – Kayla is trying her best to fit in at school, but it’s not going as well as she would like.  As she navigates the final days of middle school, she already feels like she’s facing a crisis and an important turning point.  With no friends, her life starts to change when she meets a high school student named Olivia who opens her eyes to some new experiences. But will that be enough to find her place in the world?

Same But Different – I wrote in my review of “Lady Bird” that part of the reason I couldn’t fully invest in the film was my lack of personal connection.  I didn’t have that issue with “Eighth Grade.”  This movie wonderfully captures the insecurities that most, if not all, teenagers face.  There’s so much self-doubt and every interaction with other people feels like it’s the most important thing. You run through conversations in your head constantly, both before and after the fact, and Kayla brings that mindset to the forefront for us to relive.

Double Life – We don’t see her specifically bullied, and we don’t need to.  It’s easy to understand her anxieties and desire to become a different person.  It’s a common theme as she tries to build a YouTube channel that presents one confident, popular persona while she lives a different, shy and isolated one.  A lot of people do it, but very few think that anyone else also puts on that public mask.  Technology makes things a lot harder for Kayla and I think that the movie does a wonderful job in showing how much more difficult society is to navigate for younger kids when you add social media.

Family Matters – I loved the performance of Elsie Fisher as Kayla. She does so much with her facial expressions and body language without being heavy handed.  It’s so easy to root for her.  Parents are hit and miss in these types of movies. Here we only have a father who is there to be a presence in the movie and for a couple of key interactions.  He’s not the root or cause of any of Kayla’s problems, which I appreciate.  However, as an adult audience member, I wish he had said more or said different things to her (even though I know a teenager wouldn’t necessarily listen).

Biggest Standout – The music of a film is not usually something I pay attention to, or remember. Here, the mostly electronic music was a huge part of the narrative not because of what the songs were, but because of how they were used.  The music is overpowering at times on purpose. The sound effects, music and occasional pure silence are perfectly mixed to convey her inner thoughts or her focus and no words are needed.

Biggest Disappointment – The movie revels in its awkwardness. All those cringe-worthy moments from adults trying to be relevant, and kids trying to do the same, drive a lot of the humor. Writer-director Bo Burnham came to prominence as a comedian and I wish there was a bit more comedy sprinkled in that didn’t rely on that trope.

Is It Worth Watching Again? – It is.  Just like how looking at a yearbook can remind you of how far you’ve come in life.

Rating: R
Year: 2018
Running Time: 93 min
Director: Bo Burnham
Writer: Bo Burnham
Starring:  Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson